Eddie Barnes: Shipyards become England’s wild card

The suspicion that saving our shipyards is a bribe to keep the Union has brought a powerful new voice to the independence debate
Scotlands Joker  its threat to secede  has long been played to twist the arms of Whitehall decision makers. Picture: Jane BarlowScotlands Joker  its threat to secede  has long been played to twist the arms of Whitehall decision makers. Picture: Jane Barlow
Scotlands Joker  its threat to secede  has long been played to twist the arms of Whitehall decision makers. Picture: Jane Barlow

‘I’M JUST waiting for Yes Portsmouth to be set up,” one pro-UK wag noted last week. Far off the mark? Maybe not. The Anglo-Nats are stirring.

Last week, following a clumsily briefed leak, it emerged that BAE Systems and – behind it – its UK government client, had decided that shipbuilding would continue at Govan and Scotstoun, but not at Portsmouth. A “well-placed source” told the BBC that in making the decision ministers were “acutely conscious of the politics of the Clyde”. In other words, Portsmouth MP Mike Hancock declared, the decisions “had to play into the Scottish referendum” – and, went the theory, the Glasgow yards had won out over Portsmouth in order to persuade Scots not to break up the Union.

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The reaction from the Anglo-Nats was swift. “How much more are the Scots going to take away from us English?” complained Sheila Bayliss, a housewife in Portsmouth. “They have free schooling, free prescriptions, the Royal Yacht and now our shipbuilding industry. They ­expect everything from us and give nothing in return. If they want independence let them have it but don’t come crawling to us when things go wrong.”

The High Priest of the Anglo-Nats, columnist Simon Heffer has already made his own position clear; the two nations, England and Scotland, would benefit from a divorce. “Many Scots don’t much like the English and appear ungrateful for everything that England does for them in showering them with money,” he sniffed last month.

The accuracy of Heffer’s subsidy myth can be challenged – but the fact that thousands of people in England believe it, and are increasingly fed up about it, cannot. So when Defence Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed the plans to shut Portsmouth and keep Govan and Scotstoun open, it was a red rag to John Bull – and further corroboration of the received view that the moaning Scots get everything, while the English just have to lump it.

Patience is wearing thin for many; the view for some is that, with the Scots (and the Welsh) having had their own parliaments and generous funding deals, it is time for the sleeping English giant to assert itself. So, given all this resentment down south, do the English really want us to stay in the Union? Would divorce be welcomed? And, more to the point, if the Scots decided instead to renew their vows with the rest of the UK, what would the English demand in a new pre-nup?

Recent research suggests that the image of an English nation in uproar over Scotland is overblown. While the Anglo-Nats talk loud, they still speak for a minority. Plus, the fixation among Scots on the inner wiring of the UK state is not matched by the more indifferent people of England. From within that context, however, resentment is ­growing.

For example, the most recent British Social Attitudes survey found that the number of English people who think Scotland gets more than its fair share of cash has risen from two in ten to four in ten. The number is up, but the same proportion – 40 percent – also said they didn’t know, indicating the high level of apathy towards the subject. Similarly, the number of English people who think Scotland should become independent is up, but they remain a minority. The latest poll found that 26% of people in England backed independence for Scotland, up from around 20% in the early days of devolution. As in Scotland, however, far more people back the retention of the Union. And in the run-up to referendum day in Scotland next year, the pro-UK side is likely to ensure that many of those people – Geordies, Scousers and Brummies – will be seen prominently, urging Scots “please don’t go”. In the Quebec referendum on independence in 1995, a huge eve-of-poll rally by anti-independence supporters from other parts of Canada packed an emotional punch and may have swung what turned out to be a very narrow vote in favour of keeping Canada together.

Guy Lodge, the associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), has closely studied the evolving relationship between the English and the Scots over recent years (the think-tank recently held a “Festival of Englishness” to celebrate and debate the country’s shared values). “My sense here is that there isn’t evidence that suggests that the English want shot of Scotland. I don’t buy that. Clearly, this decision [on the shipyards] will have some influence but I don’t think it will really change things. It won’t be the catalyst for turning the English away from the Union,” he says.

None the less, he argues: “The sense that the English are getting a raw deal from the Union is strong. That doesn’t mean they want rid of Scotland, but they do want a Union reformed.” England just hasn’t quite decided yet what shape that should take. The idea of an English parliament wins little support. And recent attempts to create regional assemblies and powerful City mayors have met with little approval. Lodge adds: “Scotland has talked about this for years. But the English have just started doing so. They do want something… even if people are not sure what form it takes.”

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There is what Lodge describes as a “nascent political community” growing within England. The events in Scotland have helped to shape it in some respects. But perhaps more important are questions over the loss of national sovereignty to the EU and the massive impact of immigration on many English towns and cities. The most visible political expression of this has been the rise of the populist Ukip. But the mainstream parties are also aware of the need to respond. The Conservatives’ John Redwood and Labour’s Jon Cruddas have both written widely on the need to provide an English response. In Labour’s case, Ed Miliband last year admitted Labour had been “reluctant” to talk about the English. “We have rightly applauded the expression of Scottish identity within the United Kingdom,” he said. “But for too long people have believed that to express English identity is to undermine the United Kingdom.” No longer.

And yet, as Miliband conceded, there is no obvious desire to create a fresh tier of politicians to express this new sense of Englishness. Perhaps a good World Cup next year will be enough to sate England’s nationalist thirst – but the matter is likely to be brought to a head by Scotland’s referendum. If the answer is a Yes, that much is obvious; England, Wales and Northern Ireland will have to face up to their own new state.

In the view of Alex Salmond, Scottish independence would address England’s own sense of grievance. The current set-up, he told an audience in Liverpool last year was “not fair to Scotland, and not fair to England”. Scottish independence would ensure that the two nations’ relationship would “be more positive and stronger when our nations are clear and equal partners”. The Anglo-Nats agree – though for different reasons.

But if Scotland says no, change is equally certain to happen. All three pro-UK parties now say they back increasing Holyrood’s power. Wales too is now preparing to adopt more financial clout. And, therefore, the English question has to be finally confronted. In the wake of the BAE story, reports from Westminster suggested that some cabinet ministers have made it clear they would oppose any further devolution to Scotland unless England’s own deficit is addressed. This isn’t so much about funding as about the West Lothian Question, the ancient grumble of the UK’s constitutional set-up. To solve it, UK ministers look set to back the recommendations of a report earlier this year by Sir William McKay which will limit the role that Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs will have on English-only issues. In such cases, such laws would require the backing of a majority of MPs who represent English constituencies. Insiders say David Cameron is keen on the plan. Lodge at the IPPR says the political imperative is clear. He declares: “All parties are working up to the fact that if there is a No vote, the devolved nations will get more powers. The idea that they can do that without addressing the position of England is untenable.”

However, a minor constitutional change at Westminster is hardly likely to dampen the anger of Portsmouth shipbuilders this weekend who feel that they have been cheated out of a job as part of a political game designed to “bribe” Scots. BAE Systems and the UK government both attempted to counter that suggestion last week, insisting that the decision to keep Govan and Scotstoun open this week was first and foremost to do with its industrial strengths, not its geographical location.

But the fact remains that Scotland’s Joker – its threat to secede – has long been played to twist the arms of Whitehall decision makers. And, as SNP figures like to point out, the consequence of a No vote next year will mean that this most powerful of cards will no longer be available. Their fear is that England might not just want more democratic power if Scotland decides to stay married to the Union. The warning being whispered by SNP figures is that London’s political leaders would have nothing to hold them back from ignoring Scotland as they pleased. The point is tacitly acknowledged by pro-UK figures in Scotland, even as they blame the SNP for playing Scotland’s Joker. And it is, others say, all the more reason to ensure that a Scotland within the UK gets more powers over its own finances now, while its leverage remains.

It appears that despite the anger of Portsmouth this weekend, England would still very much like Scotland to stay wedded to the Union next autumn. It is a commitment that, in the case of David Cameron in the 2015 general election, could end up costing him his job. But the question hanging over England’s commitment following a No vote is, “on what terms?” This side of a referendum, the question is hard to answer. Like the longevity of all marriages, it comes down to a leap of faith.